mini-reviews: celebrity food memoirs

Food is one of my favorite things on earth—I love eating, cooking, trying new cuisines and restaurants, and learning about other cultures through food. Aside from experiencing my own culinary adventures, I usually can’t resist a good Michael Pollan book or memoir by a celebrated chef. Last year, I read to two such books by famous personalities in food and cooking:

I’ve been a fan of Padma Lakshmi from her hosting gig on Top Chef for years. She’s poised but has a sense of humor and shows knowledge of food as a judge. I also have one of her cookbooks, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet. I listened to her recent memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate on audiobook (read by Lakshmi). I really liked the parts about her childhood between India and the United States, as well as her career trajectory from model to TV show host to author. She also talks at length about having endometriosis, her romantic relationships, and becoming a parent. At times she is too self-pitying for her level of wealth and fame, but overall this is an enjoyable, light celebrity memoir. [Listened to audiobook in May 2016.]

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson has been on my radar for a few years now. Samuelsson has a fascinating background, starting with overcoming tuberculosis as a child Ethiopia and adopted in Sweden. I enjoyed learning about his upbringing, and how his race, heritage, and family shaped his love for food and development as a chef. However… I didn’t connect with Samuelsson on a personal level at all. I understand that you have to have a certain degree of self-centeredness, arrogance, and uber-confidence one has to have to succeed on the world stage (whether it’s as a renowned chef, famous musician, or whatever), but his relationships (as an adult) with his adoptive family and daughter—while I can appreciate his honesty and recognize that no one is perfect—are rather off-putting. It was a decent book, though, if you’re interested in celebrity chef memoirs. [Listened to audiobook in September 2016.]

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

an untamed state

After reading Bad Feminist and seeing this one all over “best of” lists last year, I knew I had to read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. From Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

What a powerful, harrowing book. The brutal violence during Miri’s captivity took my breath away—it reads like a bona fide thriller. Scenes flashing back to Miri’s childhood and marriage are interspersed throughout the first part, letting the reader get to know all the players better and Miri’s mindset before her 13-day ordeal began. (That’s one shining light for the reader—you know she will be freed after 13 days. Miri does not, though.) The second half of the book covers the aftermath of the event—Miri’s fragile, volatile mental and emotional health as a result of the physical and psychological trauma she endured. Not only Miri suffers during and after her kidnapping, her family does as well. They all have to reconcile with what happened to her and find a “new normal” somehow.

I do believe An Untamed State lives up to the hype—it makes a mighty impression and is not a story you’ll soon forget. However, for me personally, I found the characters to be generally unlikable. I don’t need all my protagonists in entertainment to be likable, I just got the impression we’re supposed to like Miri and her husband. They’re supposed to be great star-crossed soulmates or something, but their overall mutual unkindness to each other and immaturity was unappealing to me. I think I would have liked more insight into the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context within this story—Miri’s privilege over her captors and Haitians living in abject poverty is mentioned but not discussed in depth.

An Untamed State delves deep into the very real issue of rape and violence against women that are rampant in societies all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so thoughtfully bold on the subject. The sheer terror and fear Miri felt, both during and after her kidnapping, were palpable. Gay doesn’t hold back on the shocking sexual and physical atrocities committed on Miri, which may be more than some readers can stomach, but sticking through the whole book is worth it.

Read from August 7 to 23, 2015.

almost famous women

I couldn’t believe it when Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women came through at the library for me, it’s so new! I lucked out this time; it’s a great little collection. From Goodreads:

The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

Unfortunately I don’t have the titles (had to return to the library), but a few chapters especially stood out to me: those about the conjoined Hilton twins, Joe Carstairs, Dolly Wilde, and Romaine Brooks. These four felt the meatiest and most engaging—Bergman could expand each of these to its own full-length book and I’d read them. Her prose is at once delicate and lovely but also straightforward. I found it wonderfully different to experience slices of the women’s lives through the eyes of others in proximity to them, rather than being inside their heads (with a few exceptions).

The shortest chapters were about 2–5 pages, and only one left an impression on me—the one about the women liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Two stories I really enjoyed but perhaps didn’t quite fit with the collection were about Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, and the updated take on The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. They just didn’t exactly fit, I felt, because Allegra was a child and the Lottery update was pure fiction instead of historical fiction. But they were excellently written and honestly two of my favorites in the collection.

I have struggled with short stories in the past, and still had to try a bit with this (due to external circumstances, I’ve been distracted while reading lately), but Almost Famous Women was one of the more compelling and page-turning collections I’ve read. I think one reason I became so intrigued is because these real-life women were intriguing—I found myself doing a little internet sleuthing on Bergman’s subjects and was fascinated. I don’t think I would have ever randomly discovered these women and their stories on my own without Bergman’s book.

Read from March 1 to 12, 2015.

yes please

It’s pretty rare that I end up buying a book the same week it is released, but with Yes Please by Amy Poehler I couldn’t resist! From Goodreads:

In Amy Poehler’s highly anticipated first book, Yes Please, she offers up a big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice (some useful, some not so much), like when to be funny and when to be serious. Powered by Amy’s charming and hilarious, biting yet wise voice, Yes Please is a book is full of words to live by.

I ended up devouring nearly all 329 pages in one day, it was such a charming book and so hard to put down! I’m not sure I completely agree with the blurb above, though—”full of words to live by” and “real life advice.” Some other reviews I read accuse Poehler of being preachy with her “life advice,” but I didn’t get that sense… I suppose there is a short section about sex tips, but it’s all so humorous, it reads more like an “it’s funny ‘cuz it’s true!” type of bit rather than Poehler actually advising on the subject.

Poehler both confirms my impression of her as a person and reveals herself more in Yes Please. I loved the chapters on her upbringing and family, and I thought she showed real class and integrity when describing her divorce. Poehler’s down to earth, relatable, and endearing. I appreciated that she cops to her own foibles and errors in judgement, learning from them, admitting her privileges yet demonstrating her tenacity, ingenuity, and hard work along the way. One little grievance I have with the book, though… her repeated griping about how hard it is to write a book became tiresome.

I would love to reread this one day, preferably on audio next time, which I’ve heard is fantastic (although I’m glad I read it on paper, too, the photos really enhanced the experience for me). You’re not going to find riotous humor or the most graceful prose necessarily, but it’s really heartfelt and a delightful, enjoyable read overall. Any fan of Poehler will be a fan of this book.

Read from October 31 to November 2, 2014.

bad feminist

Back in late September (where did October go??) I ordered Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and finally got around to reading it a month later. From Goodreads:

In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django Unchained) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

I was so, so excited to start Bad Feminist. First off, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer. I don’t find Gay to be “bad” at all in regards to feminism, because it’s clear she holds its core values: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” The word feminism has become warped and demonized (“man-haters,” compared to nazis, etc.), which is really unfair to the movement and inaccurate. Feminism is about HUMAN equality and progress, social justice, for the good of society as a whole—it’s not just a movement for women because, of course, everyone benefits from women succeeding and flourishing.

Further, in the book Gay tackles feminist issues as a woman of color. Many of her essays deal with issues of gender and race, especially in relation to pop culture, like GirlsFifty Shades of Grey and Django Unchained. A few subjects didn’t resonate so much with me, like Girls and Fifty Shades (never saw/read myself), but it was fascinating to read her perspective on them and so many other topics, like The Help, for example. I both read the book and saw the movie a few years ago and enjoyed it cautiously… I remember feeling a little weird about it but couldn’t quite formalize my thoughts as to exactly why. But Gay voiced her criticisms of the film in a way that totally clicked with me. Before, I feel like I had an inkling of how poorly the black experience has been portrayed in film and TV—and again not that I can speak from any personal racial experience—but Gay really drives the point home in her essays especially about Django Unchained and the Tyler Perry movies.

There are a few essays that really stand out to me: “How We All Lose,” “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” and “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response.” in particular. I think I might have shouted out loud YES! when I read this in the “Blurred Lines” essay:

It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. … These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness—one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman’s worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored.

After a huge rush of excitement and fervent reading in the beginning, the middle third of the book started to drag just a bit for me, I think mostly just because it was super-critical essay after super-critical essay, and it just brought me down a bit one after another in succession. The ending, though, when the final two essays return to being more personal, clicked with me, too—that you can have contradictory feelings and still be a feminist. For example, I admit that my husband does much of the so-called “men’s work” around our house (garbage, car stuff, etc.) BUT, that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. Sometimes, gender roles are gender roles and it doesn’t mean anything. I do the majority of the cooking, and my husband and I split the laundry and dishes. So what, right?

I’m so glad I came across this collection—Gay’s writing is phenomenal and accessible—I’ve appreciated her viewpoints on social media recently regarding current controversies surrounding Lena Dunham and the viral NYC catcalling youtube video. I definitely look forward to reading Gay’s An Untamed State soon!

Read from October 20 to 30, 2014.